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'Wafflegate' casts shadow on rail bill signing

TALLAHASSEE — The fallout from the use of "pancake" and "French toast" in state e-mails continued to simmer Wednesday, clouding Gov. Charlie Crist's celebratory four-city tour promoting sweeping new rail legislation.

Crist traveled from city to city touting rail initiatives and promising thousands of new jobs in a car-crazy state of huge but disconnected urban centers. Crist did so without a key adviser, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos, who stayed away to avoid being a "distraction" at bill-signing events that drew media coverage, a Crist spokesman said.

Kopelousos did not return two cell phone messages.

The legislation, approved last week in a special session, will speed creation of the SunRail commuter line in Central Florida, provide $15-million more each year to South Florida's Tri-Rail system and will jump-start the Tampa-to-Orlando leg of a statewide high-speed rail network.

Crist said the bill boosts the state's chances of winning $2.5-billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

"We are now one step closer to linking rails with our roads, airports and our seaports," Crist said at the first bill signing in Tallahassee.

But the talk Wednesday wasn't about rail lines and jobs — it was about what wags have dubbed "Wafflegate."

The governor ordered his in-house troubleshooter, Inspector General Melinda Miguel, to examine why Kopelousos and a top assistant, Kevin Thibault, exchanged three e-mails relating to rail legislation with the words "pancake," "pancakes" and "French toast" in the subject line.

Crist ordered a review within minutes of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink suggesting just such a step.

"I got a letter from the CFO, I concur with her request," Crist said, calling the use of food words "odd," but not troubling enough to warrant a delay in the signing of the legislation.

"If you're going to use e-mail, just say what you want to say," Crist said.

Kopelousos said the breakfast words were used to set them apart from other e-mails, to ensure she would see them.

Sen. Paula Dockery, the rail critic whose public records request brought the e-mails to light, said they were "code words" intended to violate the public trust. DOT officials apologized to Dockery for initially not complying with her request for thousands of rail-related e-mail messages.

Sink, a candidate for governor, switched into campaign mode, issuing a statement in which she accused the state of a "violation of the Sunshine Law," which applies to open meetings — not public records.

Crist dismissed Sink's remark. "Her campaign said that," he said. "We'll leave the politics out of it today."

Sink campaign spokesman Paul Dunn defended her choice of words, noting her statement also used words such as "apparently" and "may have."

The incident conforms neatly with Sink's campaign narrative of restoring faith in government and holding bureaucrats accountable.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, who like Dockery is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said he supported Crist's call for an independent review.

McCollum's campaign lashed Sink for a "rush to judgment … for the apparent goal of political expediency."

Crist staged bill signings in Tampa, Orlando and South Florida.

At a Tri-Rail station in Dania Beach, he appeared flanked by rail supporters.

"It's about jobs, jobs, jobs,'' Crist said.

But, when asked if the number of jobs could fall short of the 14,000 once estimated, Crist deferred to Cynthia Lorenzo, head of the Agency for Workforce Innovation. He said it was Lorenzo who gave him that number.

"I hope we can shoot higher,'' he said.

Earlier in Tampa, about a dozen protesters criticized the legislation and revived familiar arguments against it, such as the price of buying 61 miles of CSX rail track for more than $600-million.

Protester Kevin Wright of Wesley Chapel said Florida should spend more on schools and roads.

"Floridians love their cars," Wright said. "We're not going to get out of our cars to ride on buses and trains."

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Herald staff writer Diana Moskovitz contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

'Wafflegate' casts shadow on rail bill signing 12/16/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 11:12pm]

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